Saudi Arabia moving faster than we know it
The Red Sea Project is a key component of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's plans for Saudi Arabia's economy.
Riyadh - Khaleej Times speaks with The Red Sea Development Company CEO John A. Pagano on how he is delivering on Crown Prince Mohammed's vision
The Red Sea Project is singularly one of the most important one in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030. An archipelago of almost 90 islands, it aims to create an exclusive experience for select visitors who will have access to breathtaking canyons and beaches.
In a conversation with Khaleej Times, the CEO of The Red Sea Development Company, John A. Pagano, talks about how he is delivering on the Prince Mohammed's vision.
Can you talk about the genesis of The Red Sea Project?
The genesis starts from the Crown Prince, his passion about the Red Sea. He knows the Red Sea very, very well. He understands the quality of the destination it is situated in. This is world-class. We had to create something unique here and make it relevant to the world.
What are some of the perception challenges you have had to overcome, given that Saudi Arabia has traditionally not been viewed as a tourist destination?
It hasn't, but I was taken by the vision of His Royal Highness. I haven't felt that many perception issues. Clearly, we have a job to do over the coming years to change people's perceptions and events like today, to know you would have an online system that would be available to 49 different countries is a step in that journey that's going to deliver on that vision.
The antiquity and the history is just not known; we have to get that message across. The vision for the project was always to make it available to the world. So, even with an event like (the launch of e-visas), we are going to create a special economic zone to provide regulatory environment that will allow us bring visitors and have visa on arrival.
Now, we don't need to do that because the country is moving in that direction anyway. We have instruments at our disposal that will allow us to overcome any obstacle. The country is moving faster than we are. Before I could finish the work on the destination, they have already launched these visas. Don't forget, one of the main aims of Vision 2030 is to diversify the economy away from strict dependence on oil.
Tourism is a significant economic sector, which represents 10 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP). It employs one in 10 people. In Saudi Arabia today, the contribution tourism makes to GDP is something like 3 per cent, which is not representative of the proportion that tourism represents anywhere else in the world, which tells you there is a huge opportunity to grow.
Because it has been so closed, there has been no need for tourism attractions. The tourism it does attract are religious as you would know. Now we have an opportunity to build this tourism industry. There is no competition. We can build as many hotel rooms and destinations because we are starting from scratch.
Talking about a project as vast as this one, what are they key aims in sustainable development that you seek to fulfill through this project?
The key pillar for this project is to set new standards in sustainable development dispel the notion that development and conservation are mutually exclusive. We have spent a lot of time thinking about what we can preserve for future generations to come.
What sort of employment opportunities will this create for the Saudi youth?
Huge. Direct employment will be about 35,000 jobs; indirect ones about the same number. It will contribute about SR22 billion per year to GDP by 2030. Once the destination is up and running, and I am not factoring in the spends we will make in terms of construction employments, 70,000 jobs will be generated.
How many visitors do you anticipate every year for the Red Sea Project?
Here's where our focus on sustainability will be at odds with the larger vision. The big vision is going to be get more visitors, but we will be limiting them. We are looking at visitors between 800,000 and a million. The reason for that is quite simply we don't want to make the mistake where overtourism destroys the very thing that makes it so special in the first place. We are the guardians of this special land - marine environment - and it's our duty to safeguard it for generations to come. Overtourism would destroy it.
The Red Sea is also home to endangered marine life. What steps are you planning to take for their preservation?
We partnered with the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology as our scientific and environmental planner. In every step, they have been immersed in our thinking and planning to ensure that as we develop our ideas, we created with them a marine spatial planning simulation to model everything that we are going to do both at the development phase and subsequently in the operational phase. We actually adjusted our development locations to ensure that the end-result was going to generate an increase in the conservation.
Over the next two decades, we expect to be 20-30 per cent higher in conservation value. We had to take decisions where the islands were spectacular and you would have said that's the place to build most amazing resort, but we chose not to. The science was telling us that if we'd go ahead we would endanger a nesting site for a critically-endangered sea turtle. We are only developing 20 of the 90 islands. A good number of them have been set aside where you can go there only if you are escorted because they are so sensitive. The SEZ will allow us to create standards in environmental protection that don't exist today.